By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The album (on Nonesuch), fans of the original bootleg versions should be pleased to hear, really is incredible, and it’s a major relief to say that, as it could have turned out horribly wrong. But it didn’t. From the opening harmonies of “Our Prayer” into the ghostly repeated snatches of “Heroes and Villains” to the goofball “Barnyard,” “Vega-Tables” and “Workshop” interludes to the touchingly plaintive “Wonderful,” Smile’s atmosphere is soaked with the kind of early- to mid-Americana with which every kid grows up, with great dollops of what Sahanaja calls “ear candy with a yearning.”
Wilson, a famously odd mix of genuine humility, shyness and enormous faith in his gifts, is pleased with the way the new Smile came out. “Oh, I think it’s a masterpiece. On the new album, the pitch is a lot better, the musicianship is far superior to the session musicians that I used back in those days.” He shoves aside any self-analysis on its possible deeper layers. “Pet Sounds was more of an emotional kind of experience, and social statements and introspective lyrics. I think Smile is the most joyous, happy, creative music ever made, better than Pet Sounds, even.”
The album’s rough storyline details a trip from east to west across America that stops to look at Plymouth Rock, the Great Plains, cowboys ’n’ injuns, the iron horse, barbershop quartets, old mining towns and saloons. But Parks says to give it a “theme” is too specific. They weren’t consciously thinking that way back then. “We simply wanted something good done. Anytime Brian wanted some music, he would turn to me and I would try to make words for those notes. He wrote ‘Heroes and Villains’ in one day. That was a lot of syllables. We didn’t know what the theme was. He had a tune that sounded like Marty Robbins, a romantic Southwestern ballad. So that surrounded me in El Paso, in a way, stories that could be told. We didn’t know how it’d be used; we were just creating these vignettes, like scrimshaw, tooth by tooth.
“But Brian was in a rapture. He was taken by a creative spasm of activity — he was young, physically able, very smart, very talented. More than that, very devoted to a lot of people. He was the employer of a lot of people. He was very kind and socially devoted, very generous in his spirit. That shows in his own lyrics. ‘I’m just a cork on the ocean, floating over the raging sea.’ That’s a very brave thing to say.”
Manifest destiny is just “a back story to Smile,” says Parks. “The basic question he raises is in this non sequitur ‘Child Is Father to the Man.’ I think he was going through some difficult psychological periods, coming into his manhood, having been through some truly dysfunctional and sad family experiences. And I thought at the time that that was the real motivator. This American odyssey that we were attempting to paint is just a distraction, an entertainment, away from this.”
It’s easy to see the idea of a journey across American times and places past as analogous to the life of Brian Wilson. For at the time of Smile’s original production, he had found himself facing the impossibility of going farther west. Because he was facing the ocean: At age 24, he’d had enormous success in the pop world — both on his own terms, but increasingly on the business’s — and like so many others of his mid-’60s generation, he was forced, or chose, to look inward.
Says Parks, “Horace Greeley said ‘Go west, young man.’ And we did. And then it’s time to look back, and assess things, and try to look at the methods that brought us here. This is the stuff that was happening in the ’60s. A generation was doing that, questioning how we got here, and elaborating on it.”
Wilson calls Smile “a symphony to God,” quoting himself again as he has so many times before. He’s interesting like that, as if at one point he had to embark on a study of his own interviews in order to get the complete picture of himself again. In conversation with him over lunch, he does this repeatedly, as if consciously reinventing himself as himself.
These days the superproductive Wilson seems to be living a happy ending, and he’s included one in the new Smile when, just before the closing triumph of “Good Vibrations,” the album’s protagonist finds his paradise in “Blue Hawaii.” (After a bit of meditation, he discovers that it is possible to go farther west after all — you just have to take a plane to get there.)
“Music had a powerful potential after Bob Dylan arrived to enact more with songs,” says Van Dyke Parks. “And production values in the studio improved in about 1966 with a great torque. As the studios went from 3-track to
4-track and then 8-track then 16-track, all this changed the way music sounded. And the person who had publicly addressed that and used it most conspicuously was Brian Wilson. I wasn’t interested in serious music, it had lost me somewhere along the line. But this unserious music, the best of it, was Brian Wilson’s.”